Source: my copy purchased years ago!
The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.
This is what I had to say about this book when I picked it as a favorite back in 2009:
"My favorite this week is E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," a brilliant exploration of a moment in time. Doctorow weaves fiction and reality in this novel and explores issues that resonate even today. Weaving in historical figures, including Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, and J P Morgan, with some of the most memorable characters in literature, Doctorow explores racism, sexism and class structure at the turn of the last century."Ten years later, I've just re-read this book and I've gotta say that my opinion of it hasn't changed. I may be even more impressed with the way Doctorow managed to give readers such a complete sense of life at the turn of the last century - the mores, the business and political climates, the wealth gap, the transportation, the fashion, the status of women, and the prejudices against different races and cultures.
The three families that Doctorow writes about in Ragtime are symbolic of their peers - an upper-middle class white family, a black family, and an immigrant family. In order to make sure readers understand that these families are symbols, Doctorow strips the white family and the immigrant family of names, referring to them throughout the book only by their positions in the family - Mother, Tateh, Younger Brother, the little girl. But he writes each character so fully three-dimensionally that readers will still feel that they know these people.
I hadn't recalled just how much of the book is devoted to famous people of the time. Some are only mentioned in passing, others are given quite a lot of print space. Of those listed above, only Emma Goldman truly interacts for any time with the family. Often, Doctorow entirely goes away from the plot line that is entirely fictional, to write about the famous people and sometime, even on re-read, I struggled to find my way back to the meat of the story. Yet, their pieces are instrumental in setting up the climate of the time and in explaining why the things that happened with our fiction characters happen.
It's no surprise that this book connected with people when it was published in 1975 - that was a time of sexual revolution, the civil rights movement was still on people's minds, and the economic downturn the country was just beginning to recover from highlighted the difference between the haves and the have-nots. In 2009, I wrote that the issues Doctorow addressed still resonated; in 2019, I think that's even more true with the resurrection of a feminist movement, Black Lives Matter, the increasing gap between the top ten percent and the rest of us, and the pressure on police forces to reduce their abuses of power.
I believe I first read this book after I saw that 1981 Milos Forman movie adaptation. Since that time, it has remained one of my all-time favorite books. I've read so many books since that time that I feared a re-read would diminish the book in my opinion. It did not. This will continue to be a book that I recommend to everyone. It is a magnificent blend of fact and fiction filled with memorable characters and themes that will always speak to readers.